What does it mean to switch faiths? What is it like for Muslim “converts” in particular? (For lack of a better term!) What are the typical highs and lows that new Muslims experience? What happens to those open-minded seekers that when joining a group are led to exclusivism and narrow-mindedness? In this episode Dr. Farhad Shafti and Veronica Polo are joined by James Coates, who helps us with these questions as he walks us through his own particular journey.
Over the years, I have had the pleasure of working with many types of people in the Islamic community, a cross section of ideologies, cultures and sects. I have taught classes with them, represented them in the media and learned about them, from them. When someone opens themselves up to learning about others, understanding comes, fears subside and stereotyping dissipates. One of the divisive ideological topics among Muslims is that between those with an agenda to malign the Saudi Kingdom and their brand of Islam dominant on the Arabian Penninsula by labelling Salafis ‘Wahhabi’. Interestingly, it is also a term propagated by anti-Islam haters to describe all of us Muslims. I will explain how the term is misleading, divisive, offensive and, yes, even racist in it’s use by Muslims and non-Muslims alike and should not be used. However, before I explain, it is important that anyone who discusses this topic understand the basic history of the Saud’s rise to power and the modern politic. There are a lot of support link references throughout the article for you to study if you really wish to delve into the topic.
The purpose of this write up isn’t for the defence of the Salafi movement or the Saudi Kingdom. However, as a Muslim, it is my duty to draw the line where the facts and sound reason exist, to stand firm for justice. Far too often innocent bystanders (and new Muslims) are caught up in a viscous propaganda campaign of hate waged by some Muslim groups and non-Muslim hate groups on this topic.
“You who believe, uphold justice and bear witness to God, even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives. Whether the person is rich or poor, God can best take care of both. Refrain from following your own desire, so that you can act justly- if you distort or neglect justice, God is fully aware of what you do.” Qur’an 4:135
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was born and lived in ‘Uyaynah, Arabia from 1703-1792, though he spent many years abroad and taught in Basra, Iraq. He completed his education in Madina. In Iran, 1736 he taught against the ideas of various prominent Sufi leaders. The movement he founded never extended beyond Arabia, save the concepts of Tawheed.
Since the sack of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols, the Islamic Empire struggled with decline. Europe in the period after the Dark Ages, benefited from educating in Islamic territories and began to increase with technological and cultural innovation. By the 1700’s, it eventually had fully experienced the renaissance and began exporting this cultural innovation back to Islamic lands. Seeing these things as corrupt western innovation (biddah) of religion, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab began a peaceful (non-violent) revivalist response to the decaying beliefs, morals and Islamic practice in the Arabian Pennisula. He preached the removal polytheism from Islamic society and return to the roots of the Salaf(ancestors). The Salaf movement was mainly concerned with issues of Tawheed (monotheism), shirk (polytheism) and western modern innovative influence among Arab Muslims seen to be the cause of moral decay. Today, the movement views the world in much the same way.
In 1744 Muhammad bin Saud sought to use his immense military forces to found the first Saudi state but didn’t have the influence he desired among all of the people to secure his rule. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was well known among these same Arabian tribes for his revivalist work. The two movements officially allied. Muhammad bin Saud married his son with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s daughter to seal the deal. Under the new Saudi state, Muhammad bin Saud was to be charged with political and economic affairs. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was in charge of religious affairs.
The alliance became strong as the Saud’s conquered much of the Arabian peninsula. Religious enforcement (sometimes religious violence) was sanctioned and backed by the government of the newly formed state. To bolster Muhammad bin Saud’s forces, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab began to use his influence as a religious leader to recruit people to join the military for deployment in battlefield jihad on behalf of the state.
The mix of fundamental revivalist teaching coupled with strict state sanctioned enforcement lends outsiders to have the ‘illusion’ of orthodoxy in Islam where Salafis are concerned. The madhab (school of thought) dominant in Saudi Arabia where Salafi movement originates is Hanbali. There are many schools of thought in Islam and thus there is no ‘orthodoxy‘ in Islam.
Salafi groups generally do not partake in protests or even the political process, considering it a sin. They believe in obedience to government and are generally peaceable. Such an idea may work well in a monarchy, like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. However, as with any group there are varying degrees of those (a minority) who grow disillusioned with pacificity and become militant within the same ideology. Militant groups in all movements often go to the extent of replacing reputable established Islamic jurists with their own leaders in order to pronounce takfir (declaring disbelievers) on other Muslims to sanction and attack them for not acting on the same ‘triggers’ deemed legitimate by the group. Duality is human nature and within individuals or groups the reversal of moral value or opinion can happen for many reasons and often has triggers. It is not an event that is specific to the Salafi movement or Islam and happens all over the world (Example).
Attempts are often made to say that the Salafi movement is the ‘exporter’ of extremist ideology because groups like ISIS are ‘Salafist’, but the facts to not support the idea of such sinister ideological ‘export’. The spread of terrorism misusing the Salafist ideology is incidental. ISIS is not the only terrorist group in the world. There is no evidence to support that all terrorist movements are ‘Salafist’ and most of these terrorist movements engage in acts that contravene the teachings of the movements from which they came.
The root cause for the current terrorism crisis is simmering political instability caused by United States foreign policies that began in the 1980’s. To advance the interests of the United States to fight communism, the US secured an agreement with the Saudi Arabian government (in coordination with Pakistan, Egypt and Israel) to drive the communist Soviet Union from Afghanistan by funding, arming and training extremist groups with US taxpayer money and resources. The problem was made worse by Operation Desert Storm in 1990 and subsequent 12 years of sanctions that reduced a middle class nation (Iraq) to one of the poorest in the world. These same CIA funded and equipped jihadist assets based in Afghanistan became disillusioned with US foreign policy later went on to attack the United States on September 11, 2001. The problem of global terrorism metastasised after the destabilisation of Iraq in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and continues to grow with US foreign policies that include endless bombing campaigns, attempts at nation building and interventions across the Middle East, Asia, Europe and North Africa.
Today’s middle east crisis with ISIS is born directly out of political instability created by the United States invasion of Iraq, the attempt to ‘de-Baathify’ the Iraqi civil and military services leaving hundreds of thousands of Sunnis formerly loyal to Saddam Hussein without a job and removing the only security apparatus from the nation. The United States established a Shi’a led Iraqi government that marginalised Sunni groups. Al Qaida Iraq chose to capitalise on this and in 2006 is renamed Islamic State of Iraq. The group has re-branded itself many times since (ISIS/ISIL/IS; all the same group).
If countries are not stable, there is either no security apparatus or it is too weak to be effective. Lawlessness becomes the norm. Misuse of religion, iconography and ideology is commonplace in unstable or lawless countries. (Examples 1, 2) In fact, a large number of the recruits of these criminal enterprises or gangs also have criminal histories. The most notable global misuses of religion in human history has been the pogroms, Crusades and Inquisitions inflicted on the world by Christendom.
“Whether Sunni or Shia, Salafi or Sufi, conservative or liberal, Muslims – and Muslim leaders – have almost unanimously condemned and denounced Isis not merely as un-Islamic but actively anti-Islamic.” – New Statesman
The Council of Senior Scholars of Saudi Arabia have issued a ruling against terrorism and groups like ISIS, irrespective of the political establishment’s support for using them in the proxy war to confront Iranian influence in the region.
It’s also worth noting that in political foreign affairs that most governments have employed or supported terrorist groups to achieve their goals. In the case of the United States, examples range from the jihadist groups fighting ‘godless’ Soviet communism to the Bay of Pigs disaster to even funnelling arms and money to Al Nusra front in Syria (an Al Qaida affiliate). The current regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia (supporting groups like ISIS against Iran) and Iran (Hezbollah & Revolutionary guards against the Saudi Kingdom), should be seen with these facts in mind as we try to make sense and solve the crisis of terrorism. If one condemns one nations terrorism, we must face the fact and condemn our own nation’s terrorism equally. The coordinated efforts by the United States, Israel, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (circa 1978) to fund, arm and train these extremist groups to fight Soviet communism gave the initial credibility and rise to jihadist groups that we despise, like Al Qaida and ISIS. The problem of terrorism (a tactic of war) lies primarily with government entities, not Islam or any one Islamic movement.
Now that we have waded though the politic and how Islamic movements have been distorted and misused for political gain of both Muslim and non-Muslim governments, let’s go on to draw the lines where they belong.
The Myth of Wahhabism
“Do not speak ill of one another; do not use offensive nicknames for one another. How bad it is to be called a mischief-maker after accepting faith! Those who do not repent of this behaviour are evildoers.” Qur’an 49:11
“The Messenger of Allah said, “Do you know what is backbiting?” The Companions said: “Allah and His Messenger know better.” Thereupon he said, “Backbiting is talking about your (Muslim) brother in a manner which he dislikes.” It was said to him: “What if my (Muslim) brother is as I say.” He said, “If he is actually as you say, then that is backbiting; but if that is not in him, that is slandering.“” (Riyadh as-Salihin [Muslim])
Taymiyyan? – The Salafi do not follow Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. They rarely make mention of any of his teachings instead referencing various hadith from common sources (Bukhari, Muslim, Ibn Majah, Thirmidhi, etc). In fact, if one is lucky they may just find a biography of his life in a bookstore where Salafis patronise. Of the four Islamic schools of thought their madthab is Hanbali. Why are they not named after the madhab, Hanbalian? The Salafi rely on a host of scholarly opinions but orientalist scholars claim that they rely more heavily on Ibn Taymiyyah. If they reference Ibn Taymiyyah extensively and rarely if ever (I’ve never heard one in my 21 years as a Muslim) reference Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, how can they be ‘Wahhabi’? Why not ‘Taymiyyan‘?
Follow Muhammad (PBUH) – Salafi never call themselves Wahhabi. In fact, it is considered a derogatory designed to malign their movement by making the false claim that their movement is synonymous with terrorism (much like Islam-haters do to all Muslims). Like any other Muslim with our pet ideologies or favourite movement, they are followers of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Consequently, this is the same logic that is used by the Islam hate industry to slander all Muslims.
Islam-hate – It is a term also used by many non-Muslims to promote anti-Islam agendas. The term ‘Wahhabi’ means different things to different people. It means nothing (other than slander) to the Salafi because they don’t follow Wahhab. It is misapplied to them by other Muslims. It is a term applied by media pundits at times to identify terrorism. It is applied to all Muslims by the Islam-hate industry. The term is the source of confusion and hatred used not against just Salafi, but all Muslims be one Sunni, Sufi, Shi’a, liberal or conservative, whatever your persuasion.
Sectarianism – Muslim political and religious opponents (like some Sufi, Shi’a, even fellow Sunnis and others) intentionally mislabel Salafi as ‘Wahhabi’. It is commonplace among those opposing Muslim groups with an agenda to stereotype and malign both the militant and the pacifist among the Salafi, Saudi citizens or Arabs in general, painting them with a broad brush as the monolithic ideological source of all that is evil in the world (convenient for those swayed by alternate religious or national agendas). It also is used by some Muslim groups with an agenda to disqualify, dehumanise and demonise a fellow group of Muslims through labelling them extremists and spread unjustified fear and abhorrence for them. The fact is that we have already discussed the factors that brought extremist groups into existence and gave them credibility, no one group is the source of all evil. Muslim groups are being played in a game of divide and conquer by corrupt governments (Muslim and not) to advance their own interests.
No clerical system – Catholics believe that Jesus himself is God. Yet, not all Catholics follow the dictates of the Pope despite among Catholics the Pope is the head of the clergy and Jesus Christ’s divine representative on earth. In Islam there is not even a clerical system, let alone God’s divine representative in earth. It should be a no-brainer that not all Salafi side with the dictates of the Saudi political/religious establishment. Like other religious groups of people, despite perceived religious hierarchy or clergy they are still not homogeneous. Salafism has developed several schools of thinking. “There are Salafis who have become close to centrism, which is based on combining the opposites, combining mind and matter, combining the spirit and the material, sometimes interpreting and at other times abstaining from interpretation, and combining intellect, action, religion, and politics. Moreover, we cannot disregard the development of the Salafis; in the past they did not talk about politics, but now they participate in the political battles…” – Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi
Just plain stupid – In it’s mislabelling, the efforts of these Muslim opponents to keep people away from the teaching of the Salafi are made futile. As people become familiar with the slanderous label and then enter the mosque or community center there is no one there that calls him/herself ‘wahhabi’, but you will find people that refer to themselves as Salafi or following the Salaf. So, mislabelling may seem like semantics but all it does (besides the obvious slander and misleading people) is keep people from recognising them in the mosque. So, if one seriously fears their ideology so much to want to preach to people against them, why not want them identified by their proper name? Again, a no-brainer here.
Discouraging Converts – Intentionally mislabelling them a name that they don’t call themselves is divisive. The slander creates needless trouble between religious leaders (and their followers) who have agendas of hatred for the Salafi, the Salafi who don’t want to be maligned and those who want learn about Islam. It confuses people, especially new Muslims, who don’t know better and struggle to decipher Islamic groups that may be approaching them in the mosque. The agenda is more easily seen by new Muslims who get turned off by the divisiveness in a religion they chose, more than likely, to get away from this same kind of behaviour in a Church. Perhaps they just don’t have the time in their lives for such childish behavior either. You aren’t doing da’wah here, you are doing anti-da’wah. People will leave Islam and probably not even take the time to tell anyone. How is that going to look in our book of deeds? “The record of their deeds will be laid open and you will see the guilty, dismayed at what they contain, saying, ‘Woe to us! What a record this is! It does not leave any deed, small or large, unaccounted for!’ They will find everything they ever did laid in front of them: your Lord will not be unjust to anyone.” Qur’an 18:49
Racism – There is a conglomerate of groups that engage in this type of smear campaign. Western media and pundits, Islam-haters and even other Muslims who are using the term ‘Wahhabi’ are using the term to identify a particular type of extremism (or terrorism) that they oppose. Yet, there are no ‘Wahhabi’. Instead what they are tacitly referring to without being forthright is ‘all Salafi’ or ‘all Saudis’ or in some cases ‘all Arabs’ and even in the case of non-Muslim Islam-haters who use the term: all practising Muslims.
Racism isn’t merely maligning someone based on ethnicity. It is a legacy construct of colonialism, which places value on European civilisations over that of the occupied ‘savage’ colonies. The implication being an ‘us versus them’ attitude where all of ‘them’ are savages worthy of hatred, pogroms, or civilising campaigns based on ‘their’ grouping. By the same token, these former colonies have began using these ‘superior’ attitudes against others based on ethnicity, nationality, madhab, religion, etc. It is an attitude of ‘supremacy’ once particular to colonial Europe (that still exists among White Supremacists today) which has been learned by the colonised who are using it against each other, in this case the mythical demon named the ‘Wahhabi’. Racism is also not always expressed in explicit terms, but tacit. Racism may also entirely cast aside ethic markers. This is known as ‘cultural racism‘.
There are many groups of Muslims and western non-Muslims that use the term ‘Wahhabi’ in the derogatory sense to imply ‘all Arabs’ or ‘all Saudis’ are extremists. Recently, I experienced a group on Facebook who will go unnamed.
It was a 7000 member strong facebook group with a stated goal to ‘help new convert Muslims‘. In reality the group was mostly a cross section of ‘Asian’ Muslims who had repeated threads about the evil ‘Wahhabi’ and how to defeat them. The discussions rapidly descended into hate speech against Arabs. When prodded what was meant by some of the anti-arab statements, one of the members (again unnamed) joked, “All Arabs are killing machines”. I reasoned with him that mislabelling them and grouping all of them together coupled with making a statement like that is what leads to hate speech against peaceful ‘Salafi’ (fellow Muslims) and it does no practical good to mislabel them. Needless to say he didn’t take that well, sent me a message cursing at me, accusing me of calling him a hater and calling on the admin in the group to try to get me banned. In the spate of a few hours of this discussion followed by this group member’s threats to get me banned.
The point is that, though the group may have started with the best of intentions, the entire group was whipped up into a frenzy of ‘us versus them’ to the point that no one could reason and it didn’t take long. It was a flash response to challenging the social norm of anti-Arab (Muslim on Muslim) hate. If I were to believe their psychological projection onto the Salafi, it would be something I might have expected from these so-called ‘intolerant’ people they hated. It was no longer a forum of learning but a forum of anti-arab hate speech. Stereotyping, educating new Muslims (their stated goal), teaching them not to paint people with a broad brush of blind hatred, giving reasons to objection to the Salafi movement, didn’t matter. Anyone who questioned their blind stereotyping was a threat and needed to be cursed at and strong armed into silence. What mattered more was that they are Malay and they don’t like Arabs, our Islam is more valuable and valid while someone else’s is not. It is ‘us versus them‘. It’s the same thing Muslims often are seen complaining about when non-Muslims stereotype Islam, but on a micro level. I suspect in addition to ethnicity, religious persuasion played an ‘us versus them‘ role in this hateful response also.
“The Messenger of Allah said, “Four are the qualities which, when found in a person, make him a sheer hypocrite, and one who possesses one of them, possesses one characteristic of hypocrisy until he abandons it. These are: When he is entrusted with something, he betrays trust; when he speaks, he lies; when he promises, he acts treacherously; and when he argues, he behaves in a very imprudent, insulting manner.“” [Al-Bukhari and Muslim].
Bottom line is that it doesn’t solve the problem of extremism to mislabel Salafi (or anyone) ‘Wahhabi’. Most Salafi, most Muslims, are peaceful. Extremist militants do exist among them but extremist militants have existed among Jamaat-e-Islami, Iqwan, Sufi, Shi’a, etc. and in all other non-Muslim faiths, even Buddhism. In all cases, most people (Muslims and those of the Salafi movement included) value peace and security and militants are very much a small minority. Triggers and variations in these groups and their numbers often are relative to the politics in the region or globe and governments asserting their interests.
It’s okay to to disagree with how Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab did things, to criticise the Salafi or their scholars, to criticise how the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does things, to think they have an ideological problem that needs fixing or to have fundamental disagreements between each other, but maligning others by calling them by false names is unbecoming of a Muslim and fraught with error. Instead, our language should be precise and accurate. Reasonable discussion, intellectual education and debate needs to happen for any of us to benefit or solve the problems that plague our global community.
The term ‘Wahhabi’ is a manufactured-from-history and inaccurate name created by people with the intent to malign. It is incoherent, divisive and slanderous. If one is a Muslim and sincere in their faith, they should ask themselves if this is the kind of thing Allah would want us to be doing. I suspect, He wouldn’t.
Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best. Indeed, your Lord is most knowing of who has strayed from His way, and He is most knowing of who is [rightly] guided. Qur’an 16:125
In dealing with the issue of photography, we naturally have to reach back and talk about Islamic art since they both deal with the thing people object to, images. Art creativity has been around since long before the time of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), but as Islam expanded to new regions different attitudes towards the arts emerged. As Islam spread rapidly throughout the middle east, the Umayyids (661–750CE) made some advances in the arts but were the predecessors of the Islamic Golden Age. The Umayyids spread Islam as a dynamic religion which adapted to local cultures and the arts within the limitations of Islamic civilisation.
The Umayyids were a ruling tribe from the tribe Banu Umayya. The Banu Umayya were a tribe of Quraysh who converted to Islam during the time of the Prophet, the most notable of them Uthman ibn Affan who went on to become the third Caliph during the Rashidun period. Uthman ibn Affan is considered the third of four ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs‘ who Sunni look to (in addition to Qur’an and Hadith) when interpreting Shari’ah. Caliph Uthman is also attributed with completing the very first full edition of the Qur’an begun under Abu Bakr’s term as Caliph.
The Abassids where direct descendants of Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib, the youngest uncle of the Prophet Muhammad and overthrew the Umayyids in 750 CE. The Abassid reign under Caliph Harun al-Rashid built upon the culture and sciences of the Umayyids. The result was an explosion of advances in art, music, literature, science, medicine and much more that led Islam into a full blown Golden Age, while Europe plunged itself into the Dark Ages. It was this age that Europeans traveled to Islamic lands to study in Islamic universities to acquire education which they would carry back to Europe. Eventually, this led to the renaissance in 1300 CE pulling Europe out of the Dark Ages.
Since the beginning, Islamic civilisation has been familiar with depictions of Allah’s creation. 1400 years of Islamic history tells us that these depictions were mostly permitted unless there was an element of shirk (idolatry) associated with it. Even in the case of art that had idolatrous significance that became owned by Muslims, it was often marked but not destroyed. Human (or any) representation for the purpose of worship is shirk (idolatry) and is strictly forbidden. However, the evidence shows that Muslims from all eras have never conclusively viewed representation of mundane figures as forbidden.
However, if we reach back to the Prophet’s example, although shirk is forbidden, we still do not see a total destruction or defacement of works of art among non-Muslim communities who were in alliances with Muslims. The Prophet himself demanded that Muslims respect other faiths and even participate in maintaining and repairing their religious buildings, which were decorated with paintings, statues and other works that would naturally have items of religious value considered shirk by Muslims. Examples:
In recent centuries an effort to re-establish the past glory of Islam’s Golden Age, many Muslims have come to believe that instead of building from where we were at the height of the Golden Age that we must dial back Islamic civilisation by viewing it all as bid’ah (innovation) involving varying degrees of shirk (idolatry). In doing so, there is considerable effort put into regressive ideologies that do not consider the ‘larger picture’ of the facts of Islamic history, modern living, culture, science, economy and governance. One such movement today, the Salafist movement, is preoccupied with forbidding the things that were once the pinnacle of Islamic civilisation from its earliest days to its decline at the hands of the Mongols. This movement began 300 years ago in the mid 1700s and is rooted in Saudi Arabian history. The fundamentals of this revivalist Salafist movement seems sound on the surface. It is more often overly zealous to avoid what it identifies as unnecessary bid’ah (innovation) and ascribes shirk (polytheism) where none exists. It’s marriage to the Saudi Arabian government often is problematic when interpreting Islam as it applies autocratic ideology within the country and in the movement worldwide. Since the earliest days, Islam has always been a more dynamic faith.
O people, beware of exaggeration in religious matters for those who came before you were doomed because of exaggeration in religious matters. – Sunan Ibn Majah
There is nothing wrong with being overly cautious, however, this seemingly monastic outlook is unnecessary and shouldn’t be put off as the only correct Islamic view. Furthermore, it is over-burdensome in a way Allah and the Prophet (PBUH) never intended for the believers. Such puritan ideas in the arts (among other things) are themselves a destructive bid’ah (innovation) of religion in my view.
God wants ease for you, not hardship. He wants you to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him for having guided you, so that you may be thankful. – Qur’an 2:185b
God does not wish to place any burden on you: He only wishes to cleanse you and perfect His blessing on you, so that you may be thankful. – Qur’an 5:6
A bedouin urinated in the mosque and some people rushed to beat him up. The Prophet said: “Leave him alone and pour a bucket of water over it. You have been sent to make things easy and not to make them difficult.” – Riyad as-Salihin (Bukhari)
Interestingly, one of the things that most Muslims do not think about is the representation of one celestial body (sometimes accompanied by a second) that were once used by pagan idolaters that exists on most Mosques, many national flags or religious accessories today (like carpets). Like representations of humans, animals or plants, and unlike other symbols of faith, they are representations of Allah’s creation and people in the past have gone astray to worship them or use them for polytheistic purpose.
The Star and Crescent signifies victory, sovereignty and divinity. According to tradition, in 339 BC a brilliant crescent moon saved Byzantium (now Istanbul) from attack by Philip of Macedon. To mark their gratitude, the citizens adopted the Crescent of Diana as the city’s emblem. After Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, Byzantium became a Christian city in 330 AD and was renamed Constantinople. The Crescent was adopted from the goddess Diana and given a Star by the Emperor as symbolic of the Virgin Mary.
After 1299, during the reign of Sultan Osman Gazi of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan had a dream of a crescent moon in every corner of the world with a “mighty wind, and turned the points of the sword-leaves towards the various cities of the world, but especially towards Constantinople.” The dream then became a symbol of the Ottoman dynasty. When Constantinople was conquered by Mehmed II in 1453, the crescent came to represent both Islam and the Turkish empire.
It is understood by all Muslims that this is merely symbolic and has no religious significance or polytheistic merit despite its idolatrous origins.
The night, the day, the sun, the moon, are only a few of His signs. Do not bow down in worship to the sun or the moon, but bow down to God who created them, if it is truly Him that you worship. – Qur’an 41:37
Yet, the Crescent and Star decorate our Islamic societies in the same way as picture art since the earliest days of Islam (unlike the Crescent and Star, such Islamic art never had any polytheistic or religious merit). We know with certainty that picture art decorated Mosques, town centers, palaces, homes, etc. since the Umayyids. There is one similarity between these two things (Crescent decoration and art) that tie this up into a neat bundle of understanding and is perfectly in line with Quran and Hadith. In creating and using these items, there is no intent to create a relic for people to venerate. No shirk is involved.
Since the development of the camera, there has been the ongoing debate over whether or not taking a photograph is forbidden or permitted in Islam, but there has been little understanding about what photography actually is. There are two forms of photography addressed by the scholars, ‘still photo’ and ‘video’.
Though it shares all of the characteristics of imagination involved in creating a painting, photography today is not creating a picture, nor is it taking a picture. A photograph is a reflection of a scene that already exists. Photography is the control of reflective light bouncing off of a subject. Controlling this light is similar to the control of water if you were to open a water tap and fill a jug for use at a later date. Photography is both an art form and a science. Photography is applying the talent that Allah has given you to see something and adjusting the mechanisms to control light which in turn determines how it is recorded on a micro storage chip, resulting in a great photograph for you to consume (use) at a later date. Here is how it works:
In the above diagram light rays already exist, even in total darkness. You can adjust light with a flash or simply have a longer exposure. Light bounces off or radiates from something in the world and is constantly travelling towards your camera. When you point the camera at a subject, the image is bouncing off of your mirror (or shutter in the case of mirror-less). The aperture in your lens can be adjusted for a faster (larger) or slower (smaller) light setting. The shutter can be set slower to allow more light or faster to allow less light. The sensor that will record the light can be set to more or less light sensitive. When the settings are optimal the shutter is released for the specified time. When the shutter is released, light that is already travelling into your camera continues on its way to the sensor. The sensor is electronic and the light from the scene is interpreted by the CPU, converted to data and stored in your data drive. The still photo is called a ‘frame’. The data from the photo frame can be exported for data manipulation on your PC, stored or printed for whatever reason.
Whether you have a camera dedicated for television or movies, DSLR or mobile phone, all digital cameras are video capable. A video is a series of still photo frames that are taken with the correct lighting controls (aperture, shutter speed and sensor strength) that are recorded for playback into what is called ‘frame rate’. When they are played back, the frame rate is the number of images that are played back, displayed or projected per second. Although video can be viewed as a separate art form, it works in the exact same way that still photography works, with one exception: audio. Audio breathes life into the collection of rapidly projected photographs and is imprinted on what we call television, computer screens, tablets and mobile phones. It can also be frozen by frame and printed the same as a still photo with the right software. Although this is less quality and overlooked in place of more appropriate still photography, Ultra-High Definition is making for clearer television pictures as technology advances.
Photography has many beneficial uses and as with anything that exists can be abused. It has some very relevant purposes, such as to communicate, tell a story, inspire, capture history, innocent retention of memories and challenge creativity. All of this can be used for good causes like remembering lost loved ones, making a record of your life for your family, communicating beauty on various subjects, conveying emotions, identification for ID cards or social media profiles, journalism, education in all sciences, and much more.
Scholarly Opinions, are Opinions
In large part, scholars do ‘permit’ photographs, even if they forbid painting art. However, most Salafis, who have now propagated their movement worldwide with the support of the Saudi Arabian government, have taught that still photography is forbidden except for photo ID like passports, etc. Interestingly, in the same stroke of a brush they claim that taking video is permitted. In fact, there is no difference between the two from a photographic standpoint.
It seems a lot of us Muslims get amnesia when it comes to leaders like the Saudi Arabian King Salman and a number of other Muslim dictators across Arab ‘Muslim’ countries. Their imposing portrait paintings and photographs are plastered all over our Islamic societies. These types of paintings and photos are designed to remind us who is in charge, who we should fear and who we should admire, and I don’t think they have Qur’an, Sunnah or Allah in mind. Still two wrongs wouldn’t make a right and someone’s disingenuous argumentation doesn’t allow us a free pass, so lets examine this topic further.
The evidences the scholars use to come to these conclusions are not based in Qur’an. There is no prohibition on drawing, painting, or creating art of any type in the Qur’an. The core message of Allah to Muslims is Tawheed (Oneness) and in the Qur’an He warns us about engaging in forms of idolatry. In other words, ascribing a supernatural quality, partnership, or divinity to corruptible things, either in Creation or that we create. If one examines the totality of hadith on the topic, there is a clear line in Islam between permissibly and discretion that indicates to us at what point our intent becomes the idolatrous behaviour which is prohibited in the Qur’an. Allah does not prohibit us from enjoying his creation through the arts, but limits us in our acts of divine adoration, supplication and worship to Him only. What I am speaking of is plain in the Quran:
If any, after this, invent a lie and attribute it to Allah, they are indeed unjust wrong-doers. – Qur’an 3:94
Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none like unto Him. – Qur’an 112
Further to the discussion, according to the Qur’an Allah even blessed Prophet Sulaiman (a.s.) and his family to enjoy these things that were made for them.
They made him whatever he wanted- palaces, statues, basins as large as water troughs, fixed cauldrons. We said, ‘Work thankfully, family of David, for few of my servants are truly thankful.’ – Qur’an 34:13
The Qur’an is our primary source as it is the most authentic source. The hadith are our secondary source because they are not the words of Allah but a series of chain narrations that have been authenticated and recorded hundreds of years later (longer than it took for parts of the Bible to be put on papyrus), hence all hadith must be looked at in light of the Qur’an.
The prohibitions imposed by scholars who prohibit photographic art are entirely based on a group of hadith that if seen together, in light of Qur’anic verses and the history of what purpose many images served in the time of the Prophet, they can be easily understood as they always have been since the time of the Prophet Muhammad when Islam was perfected.
This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion. – Qur’an 5:3
Here is what the scholars say:
According to Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the subject matter of a photograph is factor in prohibition. For example, nude or semi-nude photographs, drawings or paintings would be forbidden because they go squarely against Islamic morals. Such a prohibition would also include portraits of tyrants or people who are leaders or celebrities that propagate immoral behavior. He also includes subject matter like religious symbols, such as crosses, idols, etc.
Sheikh Ahmad Kutty, says, “Photography as a medium of communication or for the simple, innocent retention of memories without the taint of reverence/shirk does not fall under the category of forbidden Tasweer [picture/image].
One finds a number of traditions from the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, condemning people who make Tasweer, which denotes painting or carving images or statues. It was closely associated with paganism or shirk [association of partners with Allah]. People were in the habit of carving images and statues for the sake of worship. Islam, therefore, declared Tasweer forbidden because of its close association with shirk. One of the stated principles of usul-u-Fiqh( Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence) is that if anything directly leads to haram [forbidden acts], it is likewise haram. In other words, Tasweer was forbidden precisely for the reason that it was a means leading to shirk.
The function of photography today does not fall under the above category. Even some of the scholars who had been once vehemently opposed to photography under the pretext that it was a form of forbiddenTasweerhave later changed their position on it – as they allow even for their own pictures to be taken and published in newspapers, for videotaping lectures and for presentations; whereas in the past, they would only allow it in exceptional cases such as passports, drivers’ licenses, etc. The change in their view of photography is based on their assessment of the role of photography.
Having said this, one must add a word of caution: To take pictures of leaders and heroes and hang them on the walls may not belong to the same category of permission. This may give rise to a feeling of reverence and hero worship, which was precisely the main thrust of the prohibition of Tasweer. Therefore, one cannot make an unqualified statement to the effect that all photography is halal. It all depends on the use and function of it. If it is for educational purpose and has not been tainted with the motive of reverence and hero worship, there is nothing in the sources to prohibit it.”
Imam Afroz Ali, writes, “…the dominant opinion of the modern Scholars of High Knowledge is that photography is permissible as long as they are of benefit and not for any harmful or prohibited purposes, and that photographs of humans and animals not be displayed [on a wall].”
Sheikh Ibn Baz and other more restrictive scholars expressly forbids photographs and art, claiming that the areas that he deems ‘doubtful’ should be avoided. I’ve included a portrait of him here to illustrate that this type of outright restriction seems disingenuous.
The swiftness that Shiekh Ibn Baz and others exchange ‘avoidance’ (or other qualifiers) with ‘forbidden’ regarding photography is concerning. Qur’an says:
Be a community that calls for what is good, urges what is right, and forbids what is wrong: those who do this are the successful ones. – Qur’an 3:104
God wants ease for you, not hardship. He wants you to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him for having guided you, so that you may be thankful. – Qur’an 2:185b
You who believe, do not forbid the good things God has made lawful to you- do not exceed the limits: God does not love those who exceed the limits – Qur’an 5:87
Allah has never given a command forbidding picture making, but he has forbidden shirk, that we know in the Prophet’s time was more often associated with picture making. In the same ease of saying it is a ‘doubtful’ area (since it isn’t mentioned directly in Qur’an, hadith and history seem to conflict) that the Sheikh forbids it, we can also say that it is permitted unless shirk is involved. With the same logic to forbid it we can also make it permitted as something good for us, unless misused in ways against Qur’anic teaching of Tawheed. It’s important to note also that where these scholars used to expressly forbid it in all cases, many have now changed their views regarding some of it. Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi has even noted this among some of these Salafist scholars:
“The Salafis also have developed in several jurisprudence issues, such as “photography,” which they used to consider one of the major crimes, but now they consider it allowed.”
As a photographer, I would also say that there is legitimate reason to photograph some of these things Sheikh Al-Qaradawi mentions depending on circumstance. For example, education, journalism, news reporting, etc. The line to draw is in the intent of the photograph. For example, a picture of a cross can tell a story that can illustrate to the audience a valid educational opportunity or simply can serve as a mere collection of memories on a holiday trip to the Vatican, etc. Conversely, a portrait of a nation’s regime leadership is intended to portray them in a false light that exalts them, normalises them, reinforces their rule or washes out their crimes. I agree with Sheikh Kutty that the line is drawn at the use and function of it.
According to the sum of the hadith that even Sheikh Ibn Baz lists, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) dealt with issues where the images were closely associated with promoting shirk, which was common in the culture of his time. The intent of such art was towards advancingbeliefs contrary to Islam. Centuries of Islamic civilisation dating back to the earliest surviving examples from the 7th century through the Islamic Golden Age serve as an indicator of how this topic was interpreted by the early sahabbah [companions] and subsequent scholars. Surviving documents dictated by the Prophet Muhammad himself tell us how even in some cases Muslims were ordered to repair and maintain properties of other faiths that (as common in that time) would have had religious statues, paintings and other image art incorporated into their architecture. Such a notion is still completely in line with Qur’an that expressly forbids Muslims from engaging in all forms of shirk while serving a higher purpose of Islamic civilisation.
If we consider the sum of all hadith, the Qur’an, historical context since the time of the Prophet and sahabbah, agreements the Prophet Muhammad has made with non-Muslim groups and even later Islamic history leading into the Golden Age, we can see that the hadith that many people today use to prohibit all image making is really only prohibiting Muslims from the making of relics.
I’ve also found that many scholars do not understand what photography is and have not properly consulted the industry and educated themselves on the science. When making rulings on any topic this is imperative. In the end we are responsible to Allah for ourselves. Photography is a beautiful art that has many purposes. When you take photographs, consider your subject matter, is it haram? What is the intent of the image, education, saving a memory? In the end, you are the best qualified to chart the course of your life. Don’t surrender your mind to others who wish to use the ‘just in case’ reasoning to ban photography.
We have bound each human being’s destiny to his neck. On the Day of Resurrection, We shall bring out a record for each of them, which they will find spread wide open, ‘Read your record. Today your own soul is enough to calculate your account.’ Whoever accepts guidance does so for his own good; whoever strays does so at his own peril. No soul will bear another’s burden, nor do We punish until We have sent a messenger. – Qur’an 17:13-15
My view is that if you feel you need to go that extra mile to avoid something, then do it. However, such personal convictions shouldn’t be imposed on others. It could be that Allah has permitted it, as I believe is clearly shown in in light of all of the facts of Qur’an, hadith and history. The one who does not transgress the limits set by Allah (shirk) is exercising a creative right given by Allah to enjoy for a better purpose. There are things Allah has made clear and other things He has not. Of the things He hasn’t made clear He has left us room for growth. Both the conservative and liberal thinker can be right within the confines of what Allah has set out for us in the Qur’an. In the end, we must have faith in Allah that He is the God He says He is, the Most Merciful. Niyyah (intentions) is the foundation for every act in Islam.
Messenger of Allah said, “The deeds are considered by the intentions, and a person will get the reward according to his intention. So whoever emigrated for Allah and His Messenger, his emigration will be for Allah and His Messenger; and whoever emigrated for worldly benefits or for a woman to marry, his emigration would be for what he emigrated for”. – Riyad as-Salihin [Bukhari and Muslim]
Allah would, however, raise them according to their intention. – Sahih Muslim
Allah has given us a beautiful gift and it should be used for His glory and our enjoyment. An art that portrays a sense of skill, pride, joy and beauty in the world is not forbidden from Allah, it is a gift of Allah.
And (He has created) horses, mules, and donkeys, for you to ride and use for show; and He has created (other) things of which ye have no knowledge. – Qur’an 16:8
In 2003, Ahmed Ali of The Saudi Institute, a watchdog organization in Washington DC targeting the Saudi government was behind a vicious hate campaign in a series of articles and media outlets. He based his erroneous claim on one of the speakers who was invited to speak via teleconference from the the Saudi Kingdom. The claims were that the Texas Dawah Conference was Saudi funded, supported Osama bin Laden and promoted antisemitism. Mr. Ali provided to the media a dubious translation that he made up of a supposed secretly recorded tape of the speaker, Allamah ibn Jibreen, inside a Saudi mosque. The Houston Chronicle’s independent arabic translator could not verify what Mr. Ali was claiming or to what the translation was referring because it was such a poor quality recording.
Later, due to a lot of bad press we were getting in the news and on the radio, I called up local Houston radio KTRH to discuss the matter. The conservative talk show host demanded to get to the bottom of this and thought he would roast me alive on air. So, I took him up on his offer and he brought live on air Mr. Ahmed Ali and myself, Sheikh Waleed Basyouni and the hosts own independent translator. The translator agreed with myself and Shiekh Waleed that the audio was too poor of a quality to distiguish the exact translation and who the voice was speaking about. It became clear to everyone on air that Mr. Ali made up the translation. He became enraged on air and hung up in shame. The radio host never brought up the issue again.
Interacting with the American Muslim Community is a program that I designed, managed and taught. It was a highly successful program that received rave reviews from attendees and was in the news media multiple times. It was approved by two prominent scholars in Houston, the leadership at the Islamic Circle of North America and the Islamic Society of Greater Houston. Houston police officers were invited to attend these monthly Houston Police Academy accredited classes to further department elective ongoing education at the Islamic Dawah Center founded by Houston Rockets basketball star Hakeem Olajuwon in downtown Houston.
The video contains two news clips resulting from press releases that I sent out telling about my police department program. The first interview was held a couple months after the success of our pilot program. The pilot was held with members of the Houston community including leaders from the Jewish community, the Houston mayor’s office, the US Department of Justice and many more attending. Shortly after, a second press release was sent and I invited Hakeem Olajuwon to attend to help publicize the program. The interview with Hakeem Olajuwon on Fox News is seen in the second half of the video.
The newspaper clipping below is a second appearance by Hakeem Olajuwan to visit the officers attending the program.
The article below that (Badge & Gun) is one of two articles by the Houston Police Officers Union to discuss the groundbreaking program.
Badge & Gun: April 2003
HPD is working with the Jewish and Muslim communities to educate a growing number of officers about hate crime causes and methods of prevention
BY TOM KENNEDY
Susan Llanes-Myers put into words what every police officer must have figured out a long time ago.
“Police officers,” she said, “are the first responders to hate crimes.”
Llanes-Myers, the daughter of a Texas Ranger, deals with hate education every workday. She is executive director of the Holocaust Museum Houston, where exhibits and educational programs are dedicated to teaching each visitor how hate can intensify and destroy millions of human beings.
The Houston Police Department has been taking a very productive advantage of the Museum’s educational program and continues to use the police-friendly facility to teach officers more and more about hate and hate crimes.
Several years ago, the Houston Police Academy’s Bill Hoffman saw the need to develop a partnership with the Holocaust Museum to teach Houston police officers more about hate. He figured, correctly, that officers were open to an off-site location for such an educational opportunity.
The Subject of Hate
Llanes-Myers worked with him and the HPD to set up an eight-hour course entitled Hate Crimes and Hate Groups – a Holocaust Perspective. Now the once-a-month elective usually draws a capacity crowd (60 persons).
Llanes-Myers is the lead teacher and includes a student session with a Holocaust survivor and concludes with a Museum tour.
“Our mission is to use the Holocaust Museum as a backdrop to hate in society,” the former public school teacher explained. She describes the course as “a marriage of past historical events and current events that uses the Holocaust to branch out to the hate groups of today.”
Adolph Hitler strongly pounded home hate on European soil 60-something years ago. Today, Llanes-Myers contends hate goes a long way and will intensify if more people are not educated on the subject.
Her course, for example, produces facts showing that there are at least 3,000 hate sites on the Internet.
Hate also is an educational subject that has drawn the intense interest of HPD Officer Steve Smith, assigned to the human relations unit at the Houston Police Academy since 1993.
Smith, a primary believer, supporter and encourager in the HPD/Holocaust Museum courses, said the course inspired him to envision a similar concept. Instead of just focusing on educating officers about the Jewish targets of hate over the centuries, Smith successfully sought to set up a course featuring the Muslim community.
Muslims everywhere have been targets of hate ever since the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. Although Osama Bin Laden’s ruthless band of 5,000 Al-Qaeda followers in no way represent the Muslim faith, sincere believers bore the brunt of often violent and hateful reactions.
“In November of last year,” Smith recalled, “it came to mind that maybe we need to do some training with the Muslim community.”
Smith’s Productive Efforts
He contacted the Islamic Circle of North America, a local group, and the Islamic Da’wah and soon got strong support from none other than Houston basketball legend Akeem Olajuwon. The Da’wah is located in an historic bank building in the 200 block of Main Street and receives strong financial backing from Akeem.
“Officer Roman Chavez, who works at the academy, told me about Akeem,” Smith said. “I visited with Akeem and asked if he would be interested. He said it would be a great thing to do. He wants to do more education about the Muslim community.
“It took the efforts of both Akeem and the HPD to develop this training.”
Smith also had the support and dedication of Llanes-Myers and the Holocaust Museum, as well as local Muslim spokesman Jim Coates.
Coates is a former Baptist Christian married to a woman who has been a Muslim since birth. He reverted to Islam when he met Fatimah Bhutan in his hometown of Chicago and the couple moved to Houston, which had been Fatimah’s home in past years.
Coates became a spokesman for the local Muslim community several months after 9/11 when hate crimes against Muslims were rampant because what American society didn’t know was unjustly hurting a religion.
He said Houston’s Muslim leaders decided to launch an unprecedented education campaign. Part of the ensuing process included a billboard on the North Freeway advertising a telephone number to call for information about Islam.
Smith saw the billboard, called the number and got to know Coates. After meeting with Coates and Llanes-Myers to develop the course, Smith followed their advice.
“We had the Muslim and Jewish communities kind of assisting each other in the development of this training, both having the same concerns about hate crimes or hate in the community,” Smith explained, “and you’ve got HPD in the middle facilitating, trying to bring these two communities together.”
A Success Story
It worked. Today’s story is a success, with HPD developing stronger ties to both communities as well as an improved understanding of the hate crimes that affect them.
Llanes-Myers said, “When HPD realized there was a problem, they turned to us to see how they could do it.”
She and the Museum were gracious about providing start-up help. She monitored the first class in January, led by Coates at Akeem’s Da’wah.
Coates, a truck driver for a Houston Chronicle contractor, quickly tried to clarify basic myths. Muslims, for instance, don’t meet in “mosques,” but rather in masjids.
By far his highest priority was – and still is – to stress that Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda followers do not represent the Muslim faith at all but use Muslims to further their terrorist goals.
As far as the course, Coates said, “We didn’t want to be teaching religion. We geared it to teaching law enforcement officers how to react to Muslims and understanding their culture, which is directly linked to their religion.
“Steve helped refine it and our pilot took place in January.”
Smith said the course teaches many basic lessons and could provide many suggestions of ways to better deal with the cultural ramifications.
Muslims are required to pray at least specified five times every day. They are not always the exact time each and every day.
There have been reports of Muslims acting suspiciously, such as kneeling on small carpets in a parking lot near a vehicle – a situation that seems suspicious. They are not planning to bomb a building; they are praying.
“HPD must work to have a stronger relationship with the Muslim community,” Smith said. “If Dispatch knows the prayer times, they (dispatchers) will know and the officers will know (the reason for kneeling on carpets in parking lots) and have a better understanding.
“As we have classes we’re learning more things that might be of use,” he said.
Coates sees the course as one very effective method to prevent hateful acts against an often-misunderstood religion. He is optimistic about Houston overall, calling it “different.”
“Muslim communities around the country have undergone great harassment,” he explained. “But here we have had a lot of good support from communities, particularly the Jewish community, and we haven’t had that many hate crimes.
“It is very important to get this course up and running at this time in order to help solve the problem of terrorism. Our relationship with law enforcement will be better and I think that’s very important to both sides.
“If you decided to isolate the Muslims, you will always have a problem trying to police that community. You will always be looked upon as an outsider.”
But for police officers to reach out to them and learn about them in places like the Da’wah is a step in the opposite direction – a positive direction, not a hateful one.